Every four years, immigration reform emerges as an issue of “top priority” for Democratic and Republican presidential candidates, and like clockwork both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have vowed to address a rolling crisis in which millions of undocumented immigrants work in the shadows and millions of qualified foreigners find it impossible to work in the United States.
But just because both men are paying lip service to the issue now, anti-immigration conservatives and advocates of legalization alike warn the prospect of any significant changes to the law will remain elusive, regardless of who’s president come January 21.
The biggest obstacle to reform being done over the next two years — the nation’s continued dire economic straits. Regardless of who wins the presidency, major issues like the fiscal cliff and another debt limit increase will dominate the political discussion for the next six months, leaving no room for a thorny issue like immigration.
And both parties have made clear that once those crises are addressed — assuming they can be — the next priority on the table is tax reform, a process that could take a year or more to complete. That timetable would put Congress smack in the middle of 2014 midterm elections, hardly the moment politicians of either party facing reelection would want to take up immigration.
But the problems facing immigration reform run even deeper than scheduling difficulties or even political expediency. To realistically expect a change in the status quo on immigration, the two sides need to first come to some basic agreement on what the parameters of reform might be — something neither side has been capable of.
“There is a fundamental difference in what House Republicans and what Senate Democrats view as immigration reform. In the House, there has been a myopic unfaltering view of immigration reform as being about enforcement and enforcement only,” said Angela Maria Kelley, vice president for immigration policy and advocacy at the Democratic Center for American Progress.
“In the Senate, with Republicans and Democrats, there has been a broader view going back to the McCain-Kennedy immigration bill in 2006,” she argued.
“I don’t think there’s a comprehensive middle ground. There are clearly pieces and parts that people can agree on, but that’s a step-by-step approach, which a lot of people on the left are loath to do,” said the conservative group Heritage Action’s Communications Director Dan Holler.
To be sure, a number of Republicans argued that there is a shift within the party from the hardline stance that torpedoed former President George W. Bush’s reform push — but it’s just not toward comprehensive changes.
“You’ve got a lot of members of Congress who know the demographics are becoming much more of an issue,” and that could create “the start of some sort of a process,” a veteran Republican aide who’s worked in both chambers said. However, the aide acknowledged that “I wouldn’t say it could be comprehensive.”
Rep. Chris Van Hollen, agreed, noting Monday, “I think there are enough Republicans who recognize that their extreme anti-immigration agenda has hurt them, that they’re ready to have some conversation. What the outcome is, I don’t know.”
But even then, Van Hollen acknowledged the level of GOP support isn’t enough for much to get done.
“There are a few pragmatists, but there aren’t many in the House. My guess is any Republican support for comprehensive immigration reform would begin in the Senate. I actually think it’s an issue where John Boehner has historically been pretty good, but he’s got to deal with the Tea Party caucus.”
But even if the two sides could come to an agreement on some basic definition of what reform should mean, a Romney presidency would face open hostility from reform activists, while Obama’s chilly relationship with conservatives is only expected to get worse.
“The Republican notion that Romney would have a better chance of passing immigration — I would call that bullshit,” said Frank Sharry, the executive director of the group America’s Voice, which has pushed for an immigration bargain that would provide legal status to immigrants inside the country. “That gives wishful thinking a bad name. Romney sold his soul to the nativists to win the GOP primary, and besides a few vague references to permanent solutions, he hasn’t retracted the statements he’s made this year on the trail.”
As for Obama, a House Republican leadership aide dismissed the possibility of a deal with him out of hand.
“The president has no interest in working Republicans honestly,” the aide said.
Alfonso Aguilar, executive director of the Latino Partinership for Conservative Principles agreed. “The problem with Obama is he burned so many bridges on this issue. I don’t know where he would start to build that consensus. He may have to go on an apology tour on the Hill,” Aguilar said.
Reform activists, of course, have seen this scenario play out after countless elections, which is why they have become increasingly aggressive in the demand for immediate action.
“From our perspective, we need comprehensive reform — 2013 will be the window of opportunity to finally fix this problem,” said Eliseo Medina, a leader of the labor union SEIU. “We’re gonna reward and we’re gonna punish in 2014.”
With additional reporting by Rebecca Berg.
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